Another National Hockey League season commences Wednesday with things Seattle fans can already start looking for two years ahead of their expansion franchise’s pending launch.
With the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup last June, the Toronto Maple Leafs now hold the sport’s longest championship drought, dating back to 1967. And so, Toronto fans will be hoping for another title curse-quashing this season to follow that of the Blues and of the Washington Capitals the prior campaign.
But if things don’t pan out — and they rarely do for the Leafs — then coach Mike Babcock could become a prime candidate for Seattle’s franchise a year ahead of schedule. Babcock isn’t the only coach of interest, but appears among the most vulnerable of the marquee names — Paul Maurice in Winnipeg and Bruce Boudreau in Minnesota look shaky, too — it would take for NHL Seattle to hire somebody next summer rather than in early 2021.
“That profession, just like GMs, is highly volatile,’’ NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis said last week. “I think there could be a lot of different moving parts in that as well between now and the summer of 2021. We’re not in a hurry to do that … but, I think we’re open to being a little more aggressive if the right individual became available at a different time.’’
Francis would not speculate on candidates, given tampering rules. But Babcock could be a needle-mover, as would Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina if the Hurricanes fall short of increasingly lofty expectations.
It’s worth remembering the ‘Canes only made the playoffs on the final weekend of last season before their run to the Eastern Conference final. Now, some have labeled them a Stanley Cup contender.
Brind’Amour, meanwhile, is entering the second season of a three-year deal and has yet to receive an extension some felt he’d earned after Carolina’s playoff run.
His current deal expires just ahead of Seattle’s debut season and both he and Francis are said to share a profound mutual respect from their time together with the Hurricanes. So, if Carolina disappoints and that contract extension doesn’t happen next summer, talk of Brind’Amour reuniting with Francis in Seattle could heat up.
As with the coaches, there are players fans have already started speculating about when it comes to the June 2021 expansion draft. But unlike coaching candidates, there are literally hundreds of NHL players with exponentially more variables that make any accurate draft forecasting a longshot right now.
“Anybody that has a ‘no-movement’ clause has to be protected unless he agrees to move it, so I think you can look at some of those guys as guys that will be protected,’’ Francis said. “You can probably have some fun looking at teams and speculating who may or may not be available, but it’s going to change dramatically between now and 2021.’’
All 30 teams participating in the draft — except the exempt Vegas Golden Knights — can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or eight skaters (forwards and defensemen) and a goalie. First and second-year players are automatically protected, as are unsigned draft picks.
Seattle must pick a minimum 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies.
But fans could narrow things down by looking at potential local players the team could pursue. They would have to be good enough to spark interest, but play on teams stocked with talented players protected ahead of them.
NHL Seattle assistant GM Ricky Olczyk, who specializes in contract matters, suggested fans could monitor teams pushing salary cap limits in coming seasons for signs of who might be unprotected or dealt in pre-draft trades.
The Tampa Bay Lightning fit this bill, which is why it could offer up Spokane-area forward Tyler Johnson, a 29-goal scorer surrounded by superstars the Bolts would undoubtedly protect first. Kyle Turris of the Nashville Predators is another Seattle draft possibility if he stays with the team — so watch for trade rumors this summer — given his relative high price as a third-line center on that potential Cup contender.
Back to local players, Dylan Gambrell of Bonney Lake will be three seasons removed from his NHL debut when the draft begins and could be left unprotected by the San Jose Sharks.
Conversely, while Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie of Stanwood is a popular choice locally, he’ll turn 35 during Seattle’s first season and is coming off a broken clavicle suffered in last spring’s playoffs.
It’s also tough to fathom former local junior stars Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers not being protected. Both are viewed as future franchise cornerstones and would have to collapse performance-wise — starting right now — for that to change by 2021.
More realistically, both will be worth watching this season just to see whether they progress toward projected superstardom.
The Maple Leafs have huge salary cap concerns, explaining the pressure on Toronto coach Babcock to “win now” even though his team is likely just third best in its own division alongside Cup favorites Tampa Bay and Boston.
Then again, the Blues came out of nowhere last season. Just like Vegas two seasons ago in their Stanley Cup finalist debut campaign.
So, some surprises are likely in store once again. Whether they impact NHL Seattle remains to be seen.
“You talk to the guys in Vegas and the one thing they stressed is to make sure you take advantage of the time you have,’’ Francis said.
In other words, he’ll keep his eyes open this season and see whether anything causes him to act sooner than expected.